January 17, 2021

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Danelectro Guitars: The Beginners’ Instrument Collected by Rock Stars

The classic styling of a Danelectro guitar.

Vintage guitar auctions are heavily weighted toward the three big names in guitar history—Fender, Gibson and Martin—and rightfully so: in recent decades, those companies have produced the guitars that have shaped rock ’n’ roll and folk music. When a name-brand guitar owned by a big star goes to auction, it brings big bucks. Fender Stratocasters owned by Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton have recently sold for nearly $1 million at auction. Other well-known guitar brands achieve high prices at action as well: D’Angelico, Hofner, Mosrite, Gretsch and Rickenbacker among them.

What’s rarely seen at prominent guitar auctions—but are just as collectible (and a lot more affordable)—are guitars that the great players learned to play on when they were young.

Beginner Guitars
Most parents haven’t a clue whether their children have musical talent, and few of them will invest in a fine instrument until they know for sure if Junior is going to keep up the lessons. Try it, and then buy it; that’s the usual parental philosophy. If your child turns out to be a rock star then the money was well spent. If not, little was invested.

In the mid-20th century, department stores like Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward were more accessible to consumers than were music stores and they offered affordable options for aspiring musicians. In the years after the Second World War, Silvertone guitars (a Sears brand) and Airline guitars (Montgomery Wards) were popular, entry-level student instruments. Some of the most famous names in popular music learned to play on Silvertone guitars: Dylan, Chet Atkins, Jerry Garcia, Dave Grohl and Mark Knopfler.

Over the years, Sears purchased Silvertone guitars from a number of manufacturers, including Danelectro, National, Harmony and Kay. It’s the Danelectro models that are of interest to collectors, particularly the Model 1448 from 1962, which came with an amplifier in the guitar case. Notable Danelectro-Silvertone 1448 players over the years include Jimmy Page (Led Zepplin), Eric Clapton (Yardbirds, Cream), George Harrison (The Beatles), and Jeff Beck (Yardbirds, Jeff Beck Group). From time to time, these players still use a Silvertone or Danelectro guitar in their concerts.

Why would such accomplished musicians collect and play Danelectro guitars when they can afford to play only the best? After all, these guitars were inexpensive even back in the ’60s. In 1963, a complete Silvertone 1448 outfit with case and amplifier could be purchased for $69 at any Sears store. In the same year, a brand-new Fender Stratocaster with case sold for around $300. Quite a difference in price, even 50 years ago.

Danelectro guitars are popular for one reason: they have a sound that is unlike any other electric guitar. To understand that sound, we have to understand the philosophy of the guitar’s creator, Nathan Daniel, and then have a look inside his guitars to discover what makes them unique.

Jimmy Page, Mark Knofler and Mick Jagger all play Danelectro guitars in their concerts.

Nathan Daniel was born in New York City, in 1912, to Lithuanian parents. He developed an interest in radio in the 1920s, and in the mid-1930s dropped out of the City College of New York to start an amplifier manufacturing company. His first big contract was with the Epiphone Guitar Company, but the arrangement was put on hold during World War Two. During the war, Daniel served as a civilian contractor to the Army Signal Corp labs in Monmouth, N.J., where he developed enhanced radio communications equipment.

After the war, Daniel incorporated his business as Danelectro Corporation and renewed his contract with Epiphone. It wasn’t long before he acquired the two contracts that would solidify his business for years to come: Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. Danelectro was the sole supplier of Sears Silvertone amplifiers for the next 20 years. In 1954, Daniel began to manufacture entry-level guitars under the Danelectro brand.

Technical Innovations
Daniel’s goal was to make an affordable guitar of reasonably good quality. Most of the day’s entry-level guitars were of poor quality and became hard to play very quickly. Lack of neck bracing causes a guitar’s neck to warp, resulting in the strings being too high from the fingerboard to comfortably play. Even with a good guitar, student players have sore fingers until they develop callouses. Learning to play on a poor guitar discouraged many students. Howard Daniel, Nathan’s son, quotes from a letter sent to him by writer Jim Washburn: “when I asked your dad what he was proudest of, he didn’t cite any of his industry firsts but just the humble fact that he was able to make instruments a beginner could afford that were of a quality that wouldn’t discourage them from progressing on the instrument.”

A Danelectro 1448 with an amplifier built into the guitar case.
photo 2 Silvertone guitar ad

Danelectro guitars and amplifiers were sold by Sears under the Silvertone label.

To address the neck-warpage problem, Daniel developed an internal twin steel I-beam that would keep a guitar neck straight. Years earlier, the Gibson Guitar Company began to make guitars with an adjustable steel rod (truss rod) that passed through the neck. Daniel’s support beams weren’t adjustable; they were permanent, and necks didn’t warp. Thus, beginners didn’t have to fight guitar strings that were too hard to press down.

Another issue for electric guitars is that the electronic pickups of the day were prone to humming and feedback loops, especially when guitars were played at high volume. Pickups could also amplify the hum of nearby electronics, like neon signs and electric motors. Daniel developed a shielding system for his pickups that would allow the guitars to produce a clear sound even at high volumes. The basis of the shielding process was developed by him while working for the Army during the war. The Army’s field communication equipment was plagued by electronic interference from Jeep engines, causing field communications to be garbled. Daniel developed a way to shield this interference and he transferred the process to his guitars.

Soldier Jimi Hendrix plays his 1956 Danelctro-Silvetone guitar with a group of Army musicians.
Another Army musician, Elvis Presley, and his Danelectro guitar.

The I-beam neck support and pickup shielding provided the foundation for a great guitar, but Daniel was concerned about how to make the guitar affordable. To accomplish this, he first discarded the solid-wood-body concept that was used by Fender and Gibson. Instead, he built a wooden frame in the desired shape, covered the front and back with 1/8-inch Masonite (a composite wood, like what was used on the backs of televisions and radios at the time) , banded the edges to cover up the body frame, and then either painted the guitar body or covered it with Formica. This process made the guitars lightweight (which players liked) and also enabled the guitar to be made in a variety of plain or flashy colors.

Second—and here’s where the “distinctive sound” comes in—he wired the pickups in series, rather than the common way of wiring them in parallel. When a pickup is wired in series, the electric current must flow through one component to get to the next. In parallel wiring, current is shared by the various components simultaneously. Then, Daniel housed the entire assembly in a durable but inexpensive casing: surplus lipstick tubes.

The famous lipstick-tube pickups.

The reasoning behind Daniel’s lipstick tube innovation is best explained by Joseph Fisher, Sears’ principal musical instrument buyer from 1959 to 1968. In his autobiography, Fisher wrote: “Nat was an innovator, who understood the principle of ‘rigid control of expense,’ an example of which was his innovative and inexpensive … magnetic pickups used in electric guitars. He made them from surplus lipstick tubes, bought from a cosmetics manufacturer. He inserted the electronics in the tubes and produced the lowest cost guitar pickup in the industry.”

Nathan Daniel’s innovations weren’t limited to those incorporated in a single guitar. Over the years, he was responsible for many industry “firsts,” including:

• the first six-string electric bass guitar (1956);
• the first electric 12-string guitar (1961), named for his collaborator, guitarist Vinnie Bell;
• a deep-cutaway 31-fret “Guitarlin” (1958) that offered a guitarist an extra 10 frets reaching into a mandolin’s pitch range;
• An electric guitar-sitar combination, popular with folk-rock groups. Dubbed the Coral Sitar, it added 13 drone strings to a six-string guitar to produce an Indian “raga” sound;
• an acoustic guitar that could be converted to a semi-hollow-body electric;
• a “hexaphonic” guitar, with each string having its own separate pickup, amplifier and speaker (1958; never manufactured);
• a hybrid vacuum tube/solid-state amplifier (1968).

In 1966, Daniel sold Danelectro to the Music Corporation of America (MCA) but stayed on with the company as a designer. Three years later, MCA closed the Danelectro plant due to changes in distribution. In the late 1990s the Evets Corporation began to manufacture copies of early Danelectros and Silvertones, along with a line of effects pedals. The pedals sold well; the guitars did not. So, the reproduction guitars were discontinued in 2001.

Guitar collecting websites are filled with Danelectro anecdotes, manufacturing specifications and dating information. A great resource for those interested in collecting Danelectros is the website Vintage Danelectro.

Danelectro/Silvertone guitars can still be found because they were produced in such large numbers. But, many of them were discarded because they were believed to be “cheap guitars.” I suspect that Mark Knopfler, Dave Grohl and dozens of collectors have a higher opinion of them, though.

Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.

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